The World According to Anthony Bourdain
Earlier this year, I spoke to world-renowned food authority, bestselling author and multiple Emmy-winning television innovator Anthony Bourdain of CNN's Parts Unknown at the Cayman Cookout—the Food & Wine festival hosted by Chef Eric Ripert in the Cayman Islands. We discussed life lessons from traversing the world, the politics of food and the very timely news business. Here are some highlights.
On the success of CNN's Parts Unknown:
"I never, ever, ever think about that. That's the road to madness, egomania and mediocrity. When you start thinking about what people like, you start thinking about what people expect. Then you start pandering to people's expectations. Then you start talking about yourself in the third person. And then you end up overdosed in a hotel room. I learned very early on not to think about that. You go out there and do the best you can, and you do things that are interesting to you. Hopefully it will be interesting to other people. I don't want to be adequate. I'd rather fail gloriously making something strange, awesome but ultimately a failure."
On traveling and filming Parts Unknown:
"In addition to a few months of pre-production, it takes between one and two weeks to film an episode, depending on the level of internal travel. In Paris, for example, you could draw out a show in 7 days because you sleep in the same bed every night and you basically commute to two or three scenes a day. In India, if we are moving around between locations, it could be ten days to a few weeks. You have to build in many extra days in a place like the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the inevitable fuck-ups. It takes about 9 to 12 weeks for post-production. But I have to say, the amount of care, time and attention we spend scoring, editing, color balancing writing, and so on is what makes the difference. All the difference."
On when things go wrong on location:
"We have never thrown a whole show out. We have the luxury of when things go horribly wrong, we can still show it up. We do not have to put on happy faces and pretend that this is not a dreadful and awful experience when it is. For instance, we had a couple of shows this past series, like in Sicily, and an episode of No Reservations: Romania where we did everything wrong, and everything got screwed up. It was clearly a disaster but they ended up as sort of comedy classics. Those are not the shows I go out looking to do, but we have the freedom to look into the camera and say, "This is the worst thing I have ever eaten" or "This scene has gone horribly wrong" or "I am so depressed right now I just want to hang myself in the shower." That's a luxury that most people on television don't have."
On life lessons from traveling the world:
"I have seen firsthand that things can turn on a dime. Tremendously awful, evil things happen to nice people all the time. I have seen people, again and again, relentlessly grinding under the wheel of poverty or oppression. At the same time, I see random acts of kindness and pride in the most outrageous and most unexpected circumstances. I am grateful. I understand that I am very privileged to see what I am seeing, even when it hurts.
I think that people, particularly Americans, need to be more inspired to travel and be adventurous with the things they eat. And if they are curious about the world and willing to walk in somebody else's shoes—that is surely a good thing."
On rating food online:
"Now it's a big bathroom wall where people write a lot of things about you—some good, some bad, some dumb—but we look to the Internet to help us make those decisions. Today, if you see how kids absorb information from the web, they don't have any problem making decisions based on a massive amount of information. Yelp is a perfect example. You can just scan through that and say, "Crackpot, crackpot, masturbator, crackpot, oh that's interesting."
"There's nothing more political than food. Who eats? Who doesn't? Why do people cook what they cook? It is always the end or a part of a long story, often a painful one. Look, I travel around the world asking people, "What makes you happy, what do you eat and what would you like your kids to eat ten years from now?" and I get some really interesting and complicated answers in places like Beirut, Iran, Vietnam, and even Detroit."
On being more news-like than the news:
"You know, people say "I love your show but I won't watch CNN." How weak-minded do you have to be where it's like, "Oh my God I was watching your show, which I like, and suddenly I stayed too long and I slipped over into Wolf Blitzer, and now I suddenly became homosexual and a communist." How weak-minded do you have to be where you can't even listen to something you disagree with and emerge unscathed?
On places still on the "to-do" list:
"I'd like to get into Yemen. It's not thrill-seeking. I am a dad, and I'm not looking to do adventure tourism here, but it is supposed to be beautiful. Coffee comes from there. Lots of food comes from there. It has a really old, interesting culture. Politically and obviously militarily things are bad right now, but that's a place I hope will become safe enough to travel to. Syria, obviously, I am not going to right now, either. At this point in my life, if I haven't been somewhere, it's probably because the security situation does not permit it.
On the reality of the restaurant business:
"No matter what people see on TV, at the end of the day, the antibodies of the restaurant business will push out the pretenders and only the strong will survive. The people with vision and determination, as throughout history, are the people that last. The profession has always been accepting of all kinds of people—refugees, maniacs and misfits, but to excel at it, only the few, the proud, and the weird will flourish."